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The Collar Hardcover – April 7, 2006
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There are now a record sixty-four million Catholics in the United States, yet the number of priests is plummeting so fast that hundreds of parishes nationwide are closing down. Against this turbulent backdrop, Englert charts the journey of five men toward the priesthood at a seminary that specializes in "second-career" priests -- men who come to their vocation later than their college years. We meet a divorced father and avid hunter from Wyoming, an ex-salesman and Marine with ADHD, a recently widowed father of four, a blind musician, and others. With wit and sometimes heartbreaking candor, they face the challenges of priestly life -- from the traditional hurdles of obedience and chastity to more modern travails, like the bad press let loose by recent sexual abuse scandals and the skepticism of their friends and families. For each man, these challenges are intensified by their past experiences as they sacrifice familiar comforts to answer their calling.
Englert is ideally qualified to write The Collar, both professionally, as a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, and spiritually, as a convert to Catholicism who has walked the tortuous path of faith. His empathy with the spiritual journeys of the men he portrays recalls The Cloister Walk. His deft, evenhanded unveiling of a compelling, little-observed culture will resonate with both the faithful and the merely curious.
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He points out that when construction began on the seminary, "American men were flocking to both diocesan and religious seminaries in great numbers to answer the Church's call... but vocations had plunged. Religious orders were closing the buildings they had so recently and optimistically erected and selling off their property. At Sacred Heart, only forty faculty members and students took up occupancy in a building that could house and employ several hundred people... Then they came up with the idea to open the seminary to older men with delayed, or second-career, vocations... Historically, the Church had shunned such men in part because of an abundance of younger candidates... Despite objections, open them they did, and the program thrived." (Pg. 7-8)
He points out, "Many Catholics are surprised when they learn that a divorced man ... can become a priest. This ignorance defies immediate explanation, given that for three decades, there has been no bar against such men entering the clergy, provided that their first marriage has been annulled." (Pg. 18) He also observes, "There was a common misperception among Catholics, who generally believe that the Church takes care of retired priests... priests' salaries, though recently increased, had never permitted much saving... Unlike married military personnel... priests often find themselves in the highest tax bracket because they don't have any dependents. The effect of this... is to deprive a priest of planning for retirement, when many of the expenses that were covered during his active service suddenly become his own responsibility." (Pg. 34-35)
He quotes a "traditional Catholic" who said about the book Goodbye, Good Men: How Liberals Brought Corruption into the Catholic Church, "rejected the findings of the boo and said that a lot of the problems cited had already been cleaned up. He believed that such accusations did not help the situation in the Church and predicted that in the end, flexible Catholics, both liberals and conservatives, would carry the Church forward into the future." (Pg. 56)
One seminarian "was growing increasingly uncomfortable with what he was being taught. At every turn, Father McNally's Church History course seemed to be saying the Church was evil. [The seminarian] expected this kind of thing in deeply fundamentalist East Texas, but not in a Roman Catholic seminary. [He] wrote a paper for the class criticizing the historical Church as a secular power. He was not surprised when he received a favorable response from Father McNally." (Pg. 104)
He notes, "In the years directly following [Vatican II], many seminaries became places of tumult and were transformed---sometimes almost overnight---from the hothouses of scrutiny and micromanagement ... into freeform institutions where seminarians could come and go as they pleased and where everything from doctrine to formation seemed up for grabs... Many priests left the Church, and no one could say with certainty what had caused this mass exodus. Conservatives blamed a perceived liberalization of the Church, while liberals blamed things such as Pope Paul VI's reaffirmation of Church positions on human sexuality... They insisted that such proclamations showed that Catholicism was hopelessly stuck in the past while progressive culture leaped healthfully ahead." (Pg. 192-193)
He records, "As the number of priests declined, choices were being made---sometimes actively but more often by default---to turn power over to the laity in ways that many suspected would challenge the role of priests in the future... the pastoral assistant was quite happy because the priest's negligence gave her more authority. He also noted that she was preaching, even though only priests and deacons were technically permitted to deliver the homily. This practice had crept into some Catholic churches." (Pg. 229-230)
This is a very interesting book that will be of great value to anyone studying the modern training and formation of priests, as well as other issues in modern Catholicism.